History will look at the 10 years since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, as a period of “breathtaking American ignorance” on the part of the nation’s leaders, offset by tremendous adaptability among U.S. military personnel, says John C. McManus, a military historian at Missouri S&T.
“From the broader view, the same Wahabbi-oriented terrorists who attacked on 9/11 were actually at war with the United States long before that terrible day,” says McManus, an associate professor of history and political science at S&T.
He says the struggle dates from the early 1970s when Islamic terrorists began to hijack planes.
“For 25-plus years there were incidents of varying seriousness, from the bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983 to the Achille Lauro to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing,” McManus says. For most of that time, the United States was fixated on the Cold War or the erroneous belief in the 1990s that the post-Cold War world was no longer dangerous. Sept. 11, 2001, was just the wake-up call.
McManus says the events of 9/11 led — directly or indirectly — to two protracted wars that demonstrate the limits of American power and technology. They also show that most wars tend to devolve into insurgencies, particularly in an age of superpowers.
“Napoleon learned this in Spain and Russia,” McManus says. “In our Civil War, the North may have won the conventional struggle but it lost the guerrilla struggle we now call Reconstruction. The ‘weaker’ side can always find a way to fight back, provided the will is there.
“I think future historians will marvel at the breathtaking American ignorance on the cusp of both 21st century wars, along with the equally breathtaking ability to adapt, innovate and succeed on the part of our military personnel,” McManus says.
“Churchill once said of the fighter pilots who won the Battle of Britain: ‘Never was so much owed by so many to so few.’ I think the same should be said about those very few Americans who have served in Afghanistan and Iraq. They comprise a tiny portion of our population, yet they have assumed an incredible burden and they have achieved varying levels of success. I personally believe that, without them, we would have been attacked repeatedly in the last decade.”
A member of the Missouri S&T faculty since 2000, McManus is one of the nation’s leading experts on the history of Americans in combat. His latest book, Grunts: Inside the American Infantry Combat Experience, World War II through Iraq, illustrates how American troops on the ground, the “grunts,” have proven to be the crucial difference between victory and defeat despite the U.S. military’s reliance on technology in modern warfare.